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Cruising Around New Zealand

© by Mike Keenan

MS Noordam, photo by Mike Keenan

MS Noordam, photo by Mike Keenan

Sealed for half a day - 13.5 hours to be precise, inside the tight confines of an airplane! Yuk! My spouse and I dread the Vancouver-Auckland flight.

But, as Southern Hemisphere natives intone, "no worries" - thanks to Air New Zealand's Premium Economy Spaceseat™ - an oxymoronic section between Business and Economy, providing passengers with ample space inside the Boeing 777- 300.

In fact, Air New Zealand won the "Airline of the Year" award (AirlineRatings.com) in 2015 for the second consecutive year. Their safety video featuring All Black rugby players in a parody of Men in Black sets a jovial mood, augmented afterwards by the open bar.

Two days later, after navigating myriad time zones, Holland America's MS Noordam glides us through the gray Sea of Tasman. Breakfast delivered to our stateroom, we enjoy the South Pacific Ocean's hypnotic swells, perched comfortably seven stories high on our balcony. This is the life!

Indeed, especially for Noordam's target demographic, aging seniors who circumnavigate New Zealand's two islands like navigators of old, Tasman (1642) and Cook (1769), not fussing about accommodations, food or luggage.

I opt for one of the daily ship programs. Billed as "Learn the Hakà," we are instructed by young Maori, Hikitla Te Aho, how to perform the war dance made famous by All Blacks prior to each match.

Our massive ship (1,916 passenger capacity) lifts anchor in Sydney. After two days at sea covering 1,000 miles at 22.5 knots, we gather on deck for our first spectacular views of New Zealand - Fiordland National Park, where ancient glaciers carved deep fiords into the steep, crenellated coast. We explore three rugged passageways - Milford, Doubtful and Dusky Sounds in the South Island's stunning southwest corner.

Later, we celebrate New Zealand by booking supper in the Pinnacle Restaurant, an upscale (+ $29 each) dining experience with cocktails, Matua Savignon Blanc wine, halibut and shrimp scampi - delicious along with superb service in an intimate setting.

New Zealand

We survey six cities, working northward to encircle the verdant New Zealand rolling hills, labeled 50 shades of green by my spouse, getting a feel for the country.

Mark Dixon of Awesome Tours ($185 each) picks us up at Port Chalmers to drive to Dunedin with its remarkable Edwardian and Elizabethan architecture, but first, we examine the Otago Peninsula's wildlife reserve, home to the only mainland breeding colony of Northern Royal Albatross, the world's rarest penguin, the yellow-eyed penguin, sea lions, fur seals and little blue penguins.

At Natures Wonders Wildlife Tour ($59 each), we don rubbery, anti-dust jackets and board an 8-wheeler Argo ATV built in Canada, designed to transport one over the most perilous terrain. Our driver Luke helps tourists get close to wildlife in their natural habitat. We watch a one-day old fur seal while others frolic amidst rocky crags and floating kelp.

The reticent yellow-eyed penguin is so taciturn that all I can see via binoculars is a glimpse behind a bush. Later, to dispel our frustration, Luke opens a wooden window in the long viewing passageway to reveal a blue penguin in her nest with a newborn.

Alas, with lingering memories of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, we do not see an albatross with its famed Michael Jordan-like 3 m (9.8 ft) wingspan.

Later, my spouse shops for Merino woolen goods and we tour both impressive Lanarch Castle and Dunedin's Railway Station with its ornate Flemish Renaissance-style architecture. To complete the day, Mark takes us to the steepest street in the world, Baldwin, where it's no fun to deliver mail.

72.42 kph (45 mph) winds at Port Akaroa prevent the captain from safely using tenders to get us to the port. Instead, we head to the ship's library where people play cards, scrabble, checkers, jig-saw puzzles and surf the 'Net. We will see "Earthquake City" another time.

At Aotea Quay, guide Ellie de Court takes us for a morning drive around the charming harbour. The capital city is so concentrated that she owns no car, riding a bike everywhere. The streets are spotless, and Ellie explains that she learned to - "Be a tidy Kiwi" in school.

Wellington, Te Papa Museum, Gallipoli Exhibit, photo by Mike Keenan Wellington has embraced a coffee culture; many restaurants and cafes roast beans to sell their own craft brew.

"It's expensive here," says Ellie, "but we are living in paradise." (1 CDN = 1.06 NZD) Canadian film director, James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic), recently spent an estimated $16 million to buy 2,500 acres of farmland nearby at Lake Pounui.

A highlight of our trip is the movie-based Weta Cave Workshop Tour ($25) in an unassuming collection of buildings. But at the entrance, the mundane atmosphere changes dramatically. We are met by massive orcs from The Lord of the Rings!

We see the design and creation of a futuristic gun for the movie District 9. They employ yak hair, individually threaded to construct beards. Many projects can't be shown, designed for upcoming movies, TV and increasingly for private collections worldwide.

Weta was engaged for the Gallipoli exhibit that we encounter later at Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum. The soldier models are precisely 2.4 times normal size, an ideal ratio. Anything bigger becomes cartoonish. In the remarkable exhibit, I learn that Canada's Newfoundlanders fought with Aussies and Kiwis against the Turks in this bloody WWI epic battle.

For lunch, we dine at Shed 5 Restaurant and Bar on the harbour, a former 1888 woolshed. The seafood is delicious, and we end the day with a cable car ride for a panoramic overview of the city. ($4.00)

We take the Napier Art Deco Vintage Car Tour ($175 per car) in a '38 Packard driven by David, nattily attired in period garb. Following a 1931 earthquake registering 7.9 on the Richter scale, the devastated city was rebuilt in the then popular Art Deco mode. The Napier Municipal Theatre was named one of the Top 10 Art Deco buildings in the world, and the National Tobacco Company building is one of the most photographed buildings in New Zealand.

Rotorua, Geyser, Te Puia, photo by Te Puia Tourism Rotorua
At the port of Tauranga, Anne Norton of Xquizit Tours ($160 each) takes us inland through fertile land to the "Kiwi Fruit Capital" - Te Puke. We stop at Kiwi 360, a working Kiwi fruit orchard. Kiwi can mean the fruit, bird or New Zealander.

Next stop - Okere Falls along the Kaituna River in an emerald, native forest. We examine a silver fern which symbolizes New Zealand's spirit. Anne explains, "Māori hunters used the silver underside of the fern leaves to find their way home. When bent over, the fronds catch the moonlight and illuminate a path through the forest."

At Te Puia, the Maori Cultural Centre, we watch boiling mud pools and natural geysers featuring Pohutu, largest in the southern hemisphere, erupting 30m in the air.

This cosmopolitan metropolis reminds me of Vancouver's housing bubble. The average apartment price is now $600,000, up a dramatic 31.5% from last year, surpassing its normal 16.8% annual growth!

We leave the ship to stay at the Heritage Hotel, ideally situated, a ten-minute walk to the harbour. Our cab driver is delighted that The Honourable Harjit Sajjan is Canada's new Minister of National Defence!

We enjoy a Harbour Cruise/Dinner with the Explore Group ($120 each), visit the Auckland War Memorial Museum and meet Elle Armon-Jones The Big Foody Food Tour($185 each), who ferries us around the city centre and out to the suburbs where we visit local producers, farmers markets, cafés and specialty shops.

Our final excursion is with Matakana Tours ($200 each). Our driver and guide, Nigel, takes us north of Auckland to sample tasty items at specialty shops such as Chocolate Brown in Warkworth, the Puhoi Valley Café and Cheese Store and several unique vineyards such as Heron's Flight and Hyperion. We finish off with a visit to the 1000 year-old Kauri Tree and spectacular coastal views.

On our return flight to Vancouver, we readily agree that we must return soon to New Zealand, seemingly an apostrophe on the map of the South Pacific that really should be an exclamation mark! I settle in to watch all of the Lord of the Rings movies, alert for Weta Workshop devices.

Auckland Museum, Auckland, photo by Bob McCree  Milford Sound, Fiordland, photo by Rob Suisted  MS Noordam, photo by Mike Keenan  MS Noordam, photo by Mike Keenan  MS Noordam, photo by Mike Keenan  Napier, Vintage cars awaiting cruise ship passengers, photo by Art Deco Trust

MS Noordam, photo by Mike Keenan

Besides writing for the five Niagara Postmedia newspapers, Mike has been published in every major newspaper across Canada including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun. He has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City, Seniors Review and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. With hundreds of reviews, photos and helpful votes, he has earned Trip Advisor's "Top Contributor Badge" and is considered an "Expert" in both Hotels and Restaurant reviews. Mike posts photos to Pinterest where he has a following of four thousand viewers.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan
New Zealand Tourism

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If you go
Air New Zealand: http://www.airnewzealand.ca/
Holland America Line: http://www.hollandamerica.com/main/Main.action
Tourism New Zealand: http://www.tourismnewzealand.com/
Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Zealand
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/New_Zealand
Wikivoyage: https://en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/New_Zealand
About.com: http://search.about.com/?q=new+zealand&useSolr=false
Fiction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Zealand_literature
Films featuring: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_New_Zealand_films
Music: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_New_Zealand
Places of worship: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Places_of_worship_in_New_Zealand
Sport: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport_in_New_Zealand
Trip Advisor: https://www.tripadvisor.ca/Tourism-g255104-New_Zealand-Vacations.html

Travel Aid
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Maps (Google interactive map): http://maps.google.com/
Maps (Mapquest) U.S. & Canada: http://www.mapquest.com/maps/main.adp
Maps (Mapquest) World: http://www.mapquest.com/maps/main.adp?country=GB
Media Guide (local newspapers with current listings): http://www.abyznews...
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/
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